A Georgian businessman’s Hollywood story - From taxi driver to billionaire
16 October, 2014
A Georgian businessman’s Hollywood story - From taxi driver to billionaire
Temur Sepiashvili, originally Tamir Sapir, a Jewish emigrant from Georgia used to be among the world’s richest people. He died less than a month ago and we will try to tell his somewhat Hollywood story to our readers in details.

His net worth was estimated at 1.4 billion dollars in 2010. But by the time Sepiashvili took 721st place among 937 of the world’s richest people, his net worth was already reduced to 700 million.
His company possesses 2.5 million
square meters of real estate. He leaded a rather interesting life that resembled a Hollywood movie. Once an ordinary student in Tbilisi, Tamir went to America in search of a better life and lucked out by pure accident.
Sapir spoke four languages, had a 17-storey house in Mexico, a personal plane that he had bought from Syria’s former president Hafez Al-Assad and one of the biggest yachts in the world. However, he frequently was involved in various scandals, though he always managed to come out clean. It is often said that Sapir never hided his past and remembered with a smile the Soviet times when he earned his first money.
Temur Sepiashvili was born in Tbilisi. His family owned three rooms at 14 Khodasheni Street. His father was a major in the Soviet Army. Upon finishing school, Temur began studying journalism at Tbilisi State University. He was in his fourth year when his family left Georgia and he had to discontinue his studies. “My classmate at the university was Stalin’s grandson, Vasily, whom I was friends with. I’ll never forget the time when I invited him to my home and introduced him to my father. When my father realized whose grandson he was, he fell on his knees and wept tears of joy,” Sapir recalled once.
Following the death of his father, Sapir’s family ended up in a difficult situation. But Temur managed to find a way out – his friend, who worked in the passport system, taught him to process passports for immigration to Israel, thus giving him a job. In those days there were long queues for passport-related matters, and Temur eagerly took to that new field of work, making quite a profit from it. He got married at the age of 24 and went to Israel soon afterwards. During the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, Temur decided to leave Israel and head to a small town in Kentucky.
“I was ready to accept any job, so I ended up caring for elderly women. Every day I took them to a special facility where they entertained themselves by knitting, singing and other things. They were the ones who taught me English. Right next to me lived a rich man who owned several shops. He had a business selling tools and offered for me to work for him,” the billionaire recounted.
Sapir worked as a driver, a janitor and a loader, while dedicating his free time to studying English and saving up money. In 10 months, his family came to live in New York and Temur Sepiashvili became a cabbie. “I worked day and night because I wanted to buy the taxi. I slept at the airport waiting for the first flight to arrive. In six months, the taxi became mine. I made $300-400 per day and had time to go with my family to the park, to the movies, to the restaurant”, Sapir said. He had almost everything he needed for a quiet life but decided not to stop at that. Sapir knew that there is nothing to be gained without taking risks. One day he took all his savings as well as a $10,000 bank loan and, along with another emigrant named Sam Kislin, invested it into opening an electronics shop on Broadway. “Emigrants visited our shop, mainly guests from the Soviet Union. What did they take back to their homes? Tape recorders and VHS’s,” Sapir recalled. Former President of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze played an important role in his success. “Once USSR’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eduard Shevardnadze, visited my shop. One of his bodyguards, Murad Kazishvili, turned out to be my childhood friend. Back in those days, an organization existed called “Council for American-Soviet Trade,” in which more than a hundred large American companies participated, among them Occidental Petroleum Hammer and Pepsi-Cola, which also had business ties with the USSR. With Murad’s help, I also joined this organization and went to Moscow with Vice-President Bush, who headed the Council,” Sapir explained. According to him, during his stay in Moscow, one of his friends advised him to start exporting carbamide to America. This substance is necessary for oil production and during Soviet times it cost five times less than in the US. The carbamide trade gave Tamir his first million and as he says, whet his appetite.
He exported American clothing, footwear and tech to the USSR while importing oil and oil products from there, investing profits into real estate in New York. Prices on real estate were low in 1995-1996: for example, a skyscraper that is now estimated to be worth approximately 1.5 billion dollars cost just 17 million back then. Sapir got incredibly lucky. Or in his own words, “it was nothing less than divine intervention.” In 1997, real estate prices grew and property that Sapir bought for miniscule prices sold for colossal amounts of money. This is how Sapir got his first billion.
For Tamir Sapir’s biography to be complete, recollections of his classmate, Sergo Davlianidze, must be also mentioned. “We managed to be friends and also fight in the 60’s. My classmate from Tbilisi State School #45 was a boxing enthusiast, just like me. Who could imagine that he would become a businessman? He lived in a communal apartment near an Ashkenazi synagogue in Old Tbilisi, where all neighbors had to use the same water closet. The last time I saw Temur was in 1984 in Moscow, when he studied at the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs’ academy. He already had his own business then and offered to provide me with foreign electronics and tech if I wanted to,” recalls Temur Sepiashvili’s classmate. It is noteworthy that the fact of émigré billionaire’s study at Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs isn’t featured in any of his biographies and neither does Sapir himself talk about this in his recollections.
He used to live in New York in one of the most expensive houses near the Metropolitan Museum, which he had bought for 40 million dollars long ago. It is not known whether Sapir owned real estate in Georgia or whether he had any business interest in Georgia, but local Jews benefit from his charity. It is common knowledge that he financed the restoration of the Beit-Rahel synagogue in Tbilisi. Sapir had two children, a daughter Zina and a son Alex, who were also his business partners.

Author: Mari Javakhishvili
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